There will be a temptation to say the Canberra Raiders’ 22-16 victory over the Parramatta Eels is evidence that they are back on track. A closer look at the game should bring pause to any claiming that. The Raiders were much better this game, more often than they were bad. They were far from perfect. But oh, that sweet relief.
This was a hard earned victory. The Raiders brought the game back into middle of the park, playing more direct than they had in weeks. This suited hooker Josh Hodgson more, who had his best game in a long while. More decisive and more deceptive around the ruck, Hodgson ran the ball more (8 runs for 56m) and kicked more incisively. His work to put BJ Leilua through for the Raiders second try was reminiscent of better times. Stepping out of dummy-half on the last he faked a grubber, stopped the defence and found a hard-running BJ Leilua, who received the ball so close to the line he was able to fall over. Minutes earlier he had jumped out of dummy-half and grubbered for Nic Cotric for what should have been a try.
Junior Paulo (23 for 209m) and Josh Papalii (17 for 171m) were again exemplary. Papalii gave Raiders (and Tigers) fans the satisfaction of tormenting Mitchell Moses throughout the game, giving the game its ‘Greg Inglis on Steve Turner’ moment in the second half. The play would have ended in a try if not for good cover defence from the Eels forcing an error.
Papalii didn’t just rely in running over Moses though. Often he managed to turn staid sets into moving ones right through the middle. While he didn’t get credited with a line break, on more than one occasion he bent the line and a good run and equally good ball to Jack Wighton put the Raiders into the position for the Leilua try. It feels like it’s something he does every week now: break the line, find support and create for the Raiders. It may not be dazzling ball play but it’s damn effective.
The problem for the Raiders was that while the rest of the starting pack was serviceable (Shannon Boyd led the rest of the starters with 114m), the Raiders forward depth is proving a real problem. Dunamis Lui had the most metres of the bench (65) but his defence close to the ruck was a big worry. Too often he was slow off his line, creating gaps that simply should not have been there.
The most obvious example of this was Parramatta’s third try to Siasaia Vave. One pass off the ruck, Vave waltzed in for a try through a gap created by Lui’s poor line speed on the goal line.
Moments later he nearly repaeted the same mistake. Daniel Alvaro could barely believe his luck when a massive gap opened up for him. Again it was caused by Lui’s slowness.
Fellow bench forward Clay Priest was no more inspiring. While not caught out as obviously, his ruck defence continues to be weak, providing impetus to opposition sets simply by being run at. He rarely can dominate a tackle and when he tries to he invariably gives away a penalty. He had 28 metres in his 25 minutes of play.
This will present real problems when Papalii and potentially Paulo disappear at origin time. Unless Coach Stuart is hiding Dave Taylor for some reason, the Raiders appear to simply not have any more talent in the forwards. Teams take advantage of this in the 20 minute period around halftime.
So often the focus of discussion, the Raiders halves again will find themselves at the centre of discussion following this match. Aidan Sezer kicked excellently all match, quite often from poor position. While he didn’t start offence on his own, Sezer slotted perfectly into set plays, including Blake Austin’s try that equalled scores in the 56th minute. Sezer will not win the Raiders many matches but he won’t lose them any either. In defence he was solid and with Jarrod Croker provided a solid left edge in defence.
Austin however was a bundle of contradictions tonight. His defence improved on last week but his kicking fell off a cliff. His brilliant support play turned a hopeful Croker ball into a try that equalled the match, but he dropped yet another easy-to-take ball early in the second that should have been a Raiders length-of-the-field try. He made the right decision to send the ball wide to Jack Wighton for the match-winning try for Jordan Rapana, but his poor last tackle options almost single-handedly turned the match in the first half.
It’s hard to know what to do with Austin. Unlike Sezer he often involves himself so much he can detract from the other ball players. He’s not a modern half but he’s not quite a traditional ‘running’ five-eighth either. He’s simulatenouesly infuriating and exhillirating. He could be potential wild-card if he’s able to find a way to be more consistent. But it seems naïve to think he’ll ever achieve that.
What the Raiders can be sure of is that their back three is of the highest quality. Nic Cotric turned nothing into points early in the game, spinning out of a tackle to find a way to the line. He does a huge amount of work in the tough sets and continues to impress when called on in defence. Jordan Rapana made some errors early – he still is forcing too many passes – but the sheer weight of work he finds for himself is outstanding. And when he’s called on he finds the line like no other.
Jack Wighton had a strange old game. In the first 50 minutes he failed to bring Ma’u close to the line, dropped two bombs, and a grubber, and was having what is colloquially known as a shit night.
But then he completely changed that in the last 30 minutes of the game. His touch pass to put Croker through the gap that resulted in Austin’s try was the best bit of ball play all night. He then fired the brilliant cut-out pass that put Rapana in for the winning try. Minutes after this he took a towering and terrifying bomb in a full-slide across the park. To top it off he brutally crushed Tepai Moeroa to end the game. In between he had several critical runs bringing the ball off the Raiders line. It was a stunning turnaround, and everything the Raiders need to get the two points.
Ultimately the Raiders were better in this game than in recent weeks. This was a tough game. They had less ball, less metres and defended an astounding amount on their own goal-line. A side that was not interested in being busy in September could have easily given up.
Their effort could not be faulted and their performance also improved. In almost every position they played better than in recent weeks. But problems still remain for this side, most notably in bench depth and spine consistency. Tonight they managed to beat a proper football side, albeit one without their best player and who lost another forward for the game in the first half.
Relief should be taken from this victory, and any Raiders fan is a liar if they don’t sleep a little easier tonight. But to pretend the Raiders are back on track is premature. There is much work to yet to do.
 Aside from a terrible decision in the 77th minute to kick on the third tackle with the Raiders in position to work for field goal.
 Except for one notable poor kick. Everyone gets one though right?
 Coming off your own line.